WASHINGTON, Apr 29, 2004 (United Press International via COMTEX) -- Sometimes it seems that the more science advances, the more it confirms what Grandma already knew.
It turns out that Grandma knew what was good for you: Chicken soup has therapeutic properties; it really does help treat a cold. Green vegetables, such as broccoli and spinach, help protect you from disease. Honey, so popular in folk remedies, may have anti-cancer properties. Grandma always wanted you to do the right thing, and then science found out that people who marry and those who go to church or synagogue regularly are healthier, happier and enjoy longer lives.
Now it turns out that even Grandma's needlepoint is therapeutic.
According to researchers at University College London, performing a visuospatial task -- one that uses your hands, like needlepoint, or knitting, or even worry beads -- may have a protective effect against post-traumatic stress disorder.
Researchers found that doing something repetitive with your hands and eyes during exposure to trauma makes it less likely that the spontaneous, intrusive memories called "flashbacks" will occur. Flashbacks are the hallmarks of PTSD.
The researchers showed a gory, traumatic video with scenes of car accidents, injured people screaming, body parts in the wreckage, and dead bodies. Some subjects were directed to tap a pattern on a hidden keyboard while they watched. The control group just sat and watched the videotape. Everyone was asked to keep a diary for seven days, noting any intrusive memories.
The keyboard tappers -- those who performed the visuospatial task -- had significantly fewer intrusive memories than the controls.
It wasn't that they were just distracted. A third group of subjects was instructed to count down by threes while they watched the video. That group seemed to experience a greater number of intrusive memories.
The authors of the study think that keyboard tapping, and perhaps other visuospatial tasks, serve not to distract, but to interfere with the encoding of those memories. If the disturbing images are not as deeply embedded as memories, they are less likely to pop up later. The result is fewer intrusions.
Why is this work important? Because we live in a world that somewhere suffers a terrorist bombings nearly every day of the week. Exposure to trauma is widespread, with correspondingly high emotional costs, and it doesn't look as if it will stop very soon. We need more and better ways to buffer ourselves against the effects of violence and trauma. If grandma has something to teach us about this, we are humbly grateful to learn.
We know how proper first aid helps promote healing for a physical injury; maybe we can develop methods of psychological first aid, too. Perhaps there is a way to intervene close to the time of exposure to trauma that will reduce the risk of long-term psychological effects.
The military is a special case: Suicide rates are relatively high for soldiers in Iraq, and morale correspondingly low. Soldiers in combat are at risk for PTSD. One of the lessons we learned from Vietnam is that PTSD can be a very tough condition to treat.
Creative clinicians will try to find a way to apply this research therapeutically. The possibility of intervening in the emergency room, or in the field soon after the trauma, with tools beyond medication alone, is a hopeful prospect.
(Dr. Renee Garfinkel is a clinical psychologist in private practice in Washington, syndicated columnist, and a member of the faculty of the Institute for Crisis, Disaster and Risk Management, George Washington University.)
(United Press International's Outside View commentaries are written by outside contributors who specialize in a variety of important issues. The views expressed do not necessarily reflect those of United Press International. In the interests of creating an open forum, original submissions are invited.)
Copyright 2004 by United Press International.